If you are an immigrant who has been recently arrested in D.C., this information will be particularly important for you: Do NOT accept a plea deal - even on a misdemeanor charge - without first consulting with a lawyer.
D.C. criminal defense lawyers understand that prosecutors often take advantage of the fact that legal and illegal immigrants in this country may not fully grasp the scope of their rights. Many are pressured into accepting plea deals, without being told that a conviction even on minor charges may - and often does - result in deportation.
The law requires that an attorney be appointed to all defendants accused of a felony crime in which they are facing more than a year behind bars. However, misdemeanor charges in which you aren't facing serious jail time don't require that the government give you a lawyer. But it is a very good idea, especially given what is at stake for immigrants.
The issue was recently highlighted in a report by The Washington Post. The reporter interviewed a 19-year-old who was arrested last year for a misdemeanor marijuana possession charge in Virginia. Having never spoken to an attorney and wanting to get the case over with, he chose to simply plead guilty.
Prosecutors told him all he would need to do is pay a $185 fine and hand over his driver's license for six months.
He had no idea that the moment he did this, he gave the federal government grounds upon which to deport him - which is exactly what happened a few months later.
Such scenarios are not isolated, and in fact have become commonplace.
Most of these individuals are arrested for non-violent, minor crimes. Yet they are being grouped in with with violent offenders in the deportation process.
It's become an increasing problem as of late because prosecutors in a lot of jurisdictions have begun automatically waiving jail time for a number of minor misdemeanors. The goal for them is to save the state money by preventing non-violent offenders from being housed in a correctional facility. But the latent effect is that by doing so, judges are freed from the requirement of having to provide defendants with attorneys - which also saves the government money.
Per Padilla v. Kentucky, a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, criminal defense lawyers are required to explain to illegal immigrant clients that when convicted of drug-related offenses, there is a heightened risk of deportation. This is an important consideration when deciding whether to fight the charge, as opposed to accepting a plea bargain. However, immigrants who don't have a lawyer may not know this.
Some have indicated that the whole process has become a deportation trap, something judges and prosecutors have of course denied.
Advocacy groups are now saying that the Padilla v. Kentucky standard should be applicable to prosecutors or judges when the immigrant defendant has no defense attorney.
We don't see them voluntarily adopting that standard anytime soon. That's why you need a criminal defense attorney, even in minor cases.
If you have been arrested in Washington D.C., contact the Law Office of Daniel A. Gross, PLLC at 202-596-5716.
Immigrants take guilty pleas without lawyers and can later be deported, Jan. 27, 2013, By Jeremy Borden, The Washington Post
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D.C. Criminal Defense Attorney Daniel Gross Quoted in Weapons Charges Story, Jan. 24, 2013, D.C. Criminal Defense Lawyer Blog